FringeReview UK 2016
Directed by Lucy Bailey and designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, Mike Poulton’s Kenny Morgan delves even deeper than his Hilary Mantel adaptations, exploring the events that inspired Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. Plays in the Dalston’s Arcola Theatre Studio One.
The Arcola premiere a new play by Mike Poulton – known for Wolf Hall and other screenplays – based around Kenny Morgan, Terence Rattigan’s lover for ten years, and how his attempts at suicide inspired Ratttigan’s 1951-52 masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea. Directed by Lucy Bailey and designed by Robert Innes Hopkins the drama, anchored by a gas-fire’s ominous glow, gives off an authentic reek of late 1940s rationed Britain. Prejudices march in with the characters.
It’s 1949. A young man lies slumped on the floor of a smoky, gas-filled flat in Camden till Daffyd Lloyd an Admiralty clerk and landlady Mrs Simpson break in at Lloyd’s behest and attempt to revive him, Mrs Simpson flurrying around with talk of crimes committed (suicide’s against the law, people are sent to prison). The struck-off Viennese Jewish exile doctor Ritter is sent for. A telephone number – Rattigan’s – is found and he’s sent for too.
Anyone who knows The Deep Blue Sea will realize how deliberately indebted Kenny Morgan is to it – before exploring so much else. Just how much so is made knowingly clear in this crisp pungent take on Rattigan’s experiences, feeding back fictively Rattigan’s own play as raw material. Poulton too knows what he’s about when he adapts Rattigan’s own words. In The Deep Blue Sea, Hester Collyer explaining to her husband her lover Freddie’s feelings for her couldn’t change, says: ‘Zero minus zero is still zero.’ Poulton’s Morgan explaining to Rattigan – here cast as compassionate older husband – his feelings for promiscuous callous Alec Lennox, who’s caused him to attempt suicide chose this: ‘Take nothing from nothing and you’re still left with nothing.’ We’re meant to double-take.
One reason for exploring this inspiration is Rattigan’s comment to fellow-playwright John Osborne that: ’Perhaps I should rewrite The Deep Blue Sea as it was really meant to be’ but that play was – as Rattigan’s biographer Geoffrey Wansell is at pains to point out – not a simple sex-change, but creation of Hester Collyer as a woman too, involving other originals. Poulton takes another journey.
What he points up with his chorus of neighbours is the divergence of homophobia in Mrs Simpson (Marlene Sidaway avoids caricature but revels in her swiping cameo), anti-Semitism in Morgan’s departing lover Lennox, compassion and tolerance in the others like Lloyd (Matthew Bulgo spins out his Welsh fables and personal disasters in a desperate attempt to help with a sing-song ache). Nor do the characters remain static. Each gains sympathy for the situation, even Mrs Simpson with her cup of Horlicks, each attempts to push Morgan from his self-destructive course and they almost succeed – particularly, magnificently Mr Ritter, the original of Mr Miller – but for Lennox, a toxic mix of heedless late adolescence. Lennox seems older though; we discover finally a malevolence beyond anything in The Deep Blue Sea where such feelings are absent.
Pierro Niel-Mee’s Lennox unwinds carelessly, then callously as a youth: first back from Birmingham and manager Barry Jackson’s directorial advances, showing how gay men had to both show themselves to the right people and not tell. He sesm a shade too articulate and assured however, for nineteen. Lennox is a lazy actor – Morgan had been successful but had lost his motivation living with Rattigan – but Lennox’s bisexuality, scathingly noted by Morgan to Rattigan, takes in using attractive fellow-ex-student Norma Hastings, whom he hopes to use as springboard for his escape from Morgan.
Lennox’s treatment of her bespeaks a proto-roué: ‘half an hour ago I’d have promised you anything’; few at nineteen display such assurance. The ten years between him and Morgan, however, are naturally intended to show Morgan’s vulnerability. As portrayed by actors and dialogue, they seem the same age.
Lowena Melrose unfreezes from quiet successful actress to genuine concern though her fleeting attraction to Lennox seems a little far-fetched, even given their earlier comradeship. She has – perhaps necessarily – too little to do, however.
Niel-Mee languorously curls out his drinking and venomous knowledge of Rattigan who’d disastrously seduced him and thus exposed him to Morgan in the first place.
Poulton patiently builds his characters, and the second half pays off with an acceleration of tragedy and banging on Morgan’s door, not quite tragic farce but a generous trooping-in and out of everyone bar the disillusioned Hastings. Simon Dutton’s Rattigan – he looks and moves every inch the playwright – very slightly holds back. He’s all concern but never lets go, desperately wanting to rescue Morgan yet not co-habit, but on his terms in his infamous B4 Albany flat, where he places ‘guests’ – something Lennox uses to vicious effect.
Rattigan’s still terrified his mother will guess, and this impediment is Morgan’s tragic hesitation showing homophobia’s reach of fear to the most celebrated ‘royalty’ as Mrs Simpson opines of the playwright. Their row however is magnificently orchestrated. Comic touches abound as when Lloyd also concerned leaves as Rattigan enters, all admiration but in praising The Browning Version avers Harlequinade ‘wasn’t quite up to the mark’ puncturing Rattigan all the more because so well-meaning.
Paul Keating has moved from sheepishly apologetic boy to a man darkly radiant with self-knowledge and of Rattigan as well as his errant lover. His vocal registers move flawlessly as he does. His Morgan demands rights with all the intelligence and eloquence Dutton’s Rattigan credits him with. ‘We unhappy few, we band of buggers’ Morgan explodes and with like vein brings a torch-lit savagery almost – dare one say it – out of Osborne’s Jimmy Porter, from Look Back in Anger, the play that knocked Rattigan out of fashion. It’s a tribute to Dutton and particularly Keating as well as Poulton that this whole section of the play recalls Rattigan’s own best moments.
George Irving’s ferociously humanist Mr Ritter though is the most eloquently mapped onto this play from Rattigan’s. He also deploys scathingly ironic humour which he knows will go over the heads of the British. He attributes his psychoanalytic facility to something in the Viennese water supply. Irving’s clipped pronouncements, telling Lloyd that Morgan will almost certainly try again and be successful, first chills others but reveals to Morgan the warmth of his rage invoking all the dead while Morgan still has youth and vigour. He’s viscerally different, less gentle to Morgan than Miller is to Hester Collyer; and like him in Irving’s riveting tough love he succeeds even causing Morgan to call Rattigan. There’s always Lennox though.
As a lense of late 1940s British attitudes to sexuality, being gay, Jewish, simply different, Kenny Morgan comments on such hypocrisies seventy years on with a stance Rattigan would envy. In one sense this adapts Rattigan in the way Poulton adapts Hilary Mantel’s novels, but Poulton can draw back, scrape, critique his master text, crafting a play worthy of Rattigan’s memory, in the (very different) way Giles Cole did in 2011 with his penetrating biopic The Art of Concealment. Kenny Morgan’s a true achievement and this play should enjoy as long a life as any other first-rank hommage.
It shows too how fascinated we’re becoming with Rattigan, and how great a playwright he’s emerging as – which Rattigan at least never doubted. As another former lover of his, Adrian Brown, quipped: ‘he’d think it no more than his due.’